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April 2000 - Issue No. #38

From Real Heroes to Global Heroes

by Ron Ballentine, Al Finlayson & Sharon Laivenieks

Ontario, Canada

This article, reprinted from Canada's Green Teacher magazine, describes an inter-disciplinary unit for Grade 6 in which kids' fascination with heroes is channelled into a consideration of the values and actions needed to solve global problems.

Many teachers are familiar with the phenomenon of students who resist reading in school but are nevertheless fascinated by comic books. What is it about comics that appeals to these kids? The stories present a wide variety of conflicts, characters and creatures, but one feature appears common to all: in replaying the age-old battle between good and evil, comic books serve up an abundance of larger than life heroes. From Superman to Batman, from Spiderman to the X-Men (three of whom are women), these modern superheroes are usually athletic, good-looking, and - most important - in possession of special powers to defend values which would better our world.

As educators, we hope that our students, too, will come to hold values that lead them to take action to improve the world. Education for a global perspective is one means of encouraging this. In its simplest terms, global education seeks to help students see the big picture, to look beyond the national interest to the global community. It encourages them to regard themselves and others as "crew members," dependent on each other and on the limited resources of "Space Station Earth." This unit on Global Heroes may be one way that we can link this perspective with students' ready admiration of "superheroes."

Learning objectives:

Students will:

  • View the world from a global perspective, identifying its major problems.
  • Be exposed to positive, non-violent role models and realize that ordinary individuals and small groups can make a difference.
  • Engage in creative thinking while applying problem solving skills.
  • Create art works that express thoughts on environmental issues.


Markers, tempera paints for colouring models, tissue paper for stuffing. Three-dimensional models of superheroes can be made from papier-mache. An alternative is a two-dimensional drawing on mural paper.

Time required:

While timing is flexible, if the unit is cross-curricular as intended, it is recommended that it be implemented in stages over the course of the year.

Teaching Strategies

Begin by reviewing what the students already know about heroes, and generate a list of the common characteristics of a hero (i.e. is admired; works for common good; cares for others; solves problems).

National Heroes

Brainstorm to create a list of heroes from your country, past and present. Include individuals from a variety of backgrounds such as science, medicine, the arts, sports, and politics, as well as "ordinary" people whose accomplishments make them role models for others. Examples for Canada might be Terry Fox for his contribution to cancer research, Marshall McLuhan for his vision of the "global village," and David Suzuki for his championship of environmentalism. Others to consider are the "eco-heroes" selected annually for the Goldman Environmental Prizes. Two winners have been Canadians: Colleen McCrory for her work to protect British Columbia's forests from logging; and Matthew Coon Come, grand chief of the Quebec Cree for his organization of opposition to Quebec Hydro's plans to dam the Great Whale River. The choice of heroes does not matter as much as the recognition that such people are worthy of study as empowering role models - real heroes who have made a difference.

Have students research the life and contribution of one national hero. In addition to looking at their chosen subject's accomplishments, they may consider why their subject qualifies as a hero and examine the values and vision underlying the individual's actions.


To introduce the concept of super-heroes, have students bring their comic books to read and exchange. Then generate a list of "superheroes" and repeat the process of looking for common features (i.e. have extraordinary mental or physical powers and weapons; are not selfish or vindictive).

Students might also look at the myths and legends of past civilizations to learn that superheroes, such as Hercules of ancient Greece, and Robin Hood of the Middle Ages, fulfilled needs which could not be met by human means. J. Rovin's Encyclopedia of Superheroes provides excellent links to mythology and legends as well as listings of characteristics common to all superheroes.

Have the students examine their list of superheroes to determine how many use violence to solve their problems. They will likely find that, regardless of the superheroes' good intent, most if not all of them use violence. Discuss alternate methods of conflict resolution and extend the discussion to the superheroes on the list. Stress that the "real" heroes they have learned about do not often use violence. How might superheroes solve their problems non-violently?

Going Global

Ask students to list the big problems that are facing Planet Earth. Sort these problems into categories such as political, economic, social and environmental.

Students form groups and are given the task of selecting a category of problem and creating a team of global heroes who solve the problem using their own talents and skills and without violence. Alternatively, students may work individually to create their own superheroes. However, working in cooperative groups to create teams of superheroes reinforces the idea of interdependence.

Superheroes for Peace

-Kreidler, 1984

A similar activity to that described in the Green Teacher article on page 9, Superheroes for Peace, can be found in William Kreidler's book Creative Conflict Resolution (pg. 78, 1984; reference at right). This activity has students:

  • work in groups of 3 or 4 to brainstorm a superhero who resolves conflicts non-violently
  • draw a picture of the superhero listing his/her name, power, means of resolving conflict and other interesting information
  • present the group's superhero to the class explaining how the hero resolves conflicts, where the group got their ideas and whether the students resolve conflicts the same way

As follow-up, Kreidler suggests 3 further activities:

  • Supervillains: students create supervillains who go around starting conflicts and discuss how similar these are to causes of real conflicts
  • Superhero Comics: Once students have invented superheroes and supervillains, they can show them in action by writing and drawing comic strips of their superheroes' adventures.
  • Display/Presentation: Kreidler also mentions that students' Superheroes for Peace can be used in skits, dioramas, statues and radio plays (e.g. done over the school PA system).

Students identify the problem their superheroes will solve, determine the best team of superheroes to do this, and then complete a worksheet listing the charac-teristics and qualities of each member of the team (see Figure 1).

Having established characters and conflict, students develop a plotline which shows the superheroes in action. In story writing, students might be more responsive if given freedom to use such comic book conventions as mutancy and super-human powers; but perhaps they can be guided in combining these components into a scenario involving environmental problems (toxic waste, for example) and a mutation that strengthens an existing positive power (exceptional linguistic intelligence into telepathy, for example).

Since an essential component of this exercise is to promote positive, non-violent solutions to problems, students should be guided away from powers or scenarios involving destruction of life. This may be an enormous challenge because even students with experience in conflict resolution find it difficult to avoid the all-pervasive influence of comic books, television, movies and video games. Further discussion, and practice of conflict resolution through role playing and peer mediation, may open students' imaginations to other means by which their created heroes can solve problems.

When the superheroes and their stories are complete, students may design and create life-sized 3-D models of their super-heroes. Finally, have students present their superheroes and stories to the class.

Cross-curricular Connections

The connection of a Global Super-heroes unit to Language and Visual Arts is obvious, but clearly there are also ties to Social Sciences (studying national heroes), Guidance (conflict resolution) and Science/ Technology (designing environmentally- friendly houses and technologies; solving global problems such as ozone depletion).

Supplementary Activities

One of the aims of this Global Heroes unit is to motivate students to improve their reading and writing, their creative thinking, and their ability to work collaboratively with others. Some teachers may find it helpful to lay a foundation for creative thinking and problem solving before beginning the unit. There are numerous sources of creative thinking exercises that promote divergent thinking in a wide variety of situations. Similarly, if one of the primary goals is to develop the social skills necessary for successful collaboration, a teacher would need to spend time on self-esteem and cooperative group exercises and experiences from resources such as Cooperative Learning: Where Heart Meets Mind.

When real global issues are at the heart of the learning, the idea of global super-heroes presents a powerful challenge which can be a tremendously enjoyable mix of fantasy and reality. The Global Superheroes unit has the potential to strengthen students' development as responsible, action-oriented global citizens who both care enough and know enough to be able to do at least one thing to improve our planet. Perhaps, years later, you might even recognize the name of a new global hero.


Creative and Divergent Thinking
  • Bellanca, J. & Fogarty, R. Teach Them Thinking. Palatine, IL: Skylight Publishing. 1986, ISBN 0-932935-03-6
  • Gardner, M. Aha! Insight. New York: Freemsn & Co. 1978, ISBN 0-89454-001-7
  • Von Oech, R. A Kick in the Seat of the Pants. Toronto: Harper & Row. 1986, ISBN 0-060962-48
Cooperative Teamwork
  • Bennett, B. Cooperative Learning: Where Heart Meets Mind. Toronto: Educational Connections. 1991, ISBN 0-9695388-0-4
Heroic Lives
  • Boulton, M. Just A Minute. Little, Brown & Co. 1994, ISBN 0-316103-691
  • Merritt, S. Her Story. Vanwell Publishing. 1993, ISBN 1-551250-004
  • Nader, R. Canada Firsts. McClelland & Stewart. 1992, ISBN 0-771067-135
  • Rovin, J. Encyclopedia of Superheroes. New York: Facts on File. 1985, ISBN 0-816011-680
  • Wallace, A. Eco-Heroes. San Francisco; Mercury House. 1993, ISBN 1-56279-033-1

Further Resources on Global Heroes

The following resources can help you design language lessons on the topic of "global heroes".
  • Berkowitz, B. Local Heroes: The Rebirth of Heroism in America. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books. 1987, ISBN 0-669-15830-5
  • Billings, H. Great Heroes. Austin, Texas: Steck-Vaughn. 1991, ISBN 0-8114-4691-3
  • Billings, H. & M. Critical Reading Series: Heroes. (2nd Ed.) Lincolnwood, IL: Jamestown/NTC. 1991, ISBN 0-89061-108-4
  • Dowswell, P. Tales of Real Heroism. UK: Usborne. 1996, ISBN 0-7460-2357-X
  • Hunter, N. Twenty Campaigners for Change. UK: Wayland. 1987, ISBN 1-85210-136-9
  • Johnson, B. Everyday Heroes. Marleton, NJ: Townsend Press. 1996, ISBN 0-944210-26-0
  • Kreidler, W. Creative Conflict Resolution. Glenview, Illinois: Good Year Books. 1984, ISBN 0-673-15642-7
  • Lucas, E. Global Profiles: Contemporary Human Rights Activitists. New York: Facts on File. 1997, ISBN 0-8160-3298-X
  • Morgan, N. Famous Campaigners for Change. UK: Wayland. 1993, ISBN 0-7502-0667-5
  • Pollard, M. People Who Care. Oxford, UK: Heinemann. 1991, ISBN 0-431-00555-9

This article originally appeared in Issue 43 (June-September 1995, pg 27) of Green Teacher magazine.

Al Finlayson, Ron Ballentine and Sharon Laivenieks (affiliation at time of writing - Halton Board of Education, Burlington, Ontario, CANADA). Current contact information (2007):

Ron Ballentine:
Sharon Laivenieks:


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